MOOCs Are Not the Future


If you take a train from Spain to France, you’ll halt at the border, exit the train, and board another train on the other side. The stop isn’t an exercise in border security. There’s a much smaller reason: 237 millimeters, to be exact.

In Spain, most trains run on a gauge of 1672 millimeters, while in France, the gauge is 1435. It turns out that for most purposes, the more efficient track width is the broader one, but because most of Europe operates on the 1435 gauge, it’s Spain, not France, that’s converting.

The explanatory theory of “path dependence”–maintaining inefficient systems because modernizing the infrastructure proves too costly–underlies an argument often leveled against higher education. The primary mode of instruction, the lecture, hasn’t changed substantially since medieval universities popularized the format. Despite technological advances that have made most other industries much more efficient, higher education is stuck in the past.

Online education is thought to provide the antidote for higher education’s cost disease. MOOCs in particular, in which massive numbers of students take classes over the Internet for free, seem to open the academy to increasing numbers of students, lower the marginal cost per student, and shift higher-ed to a higher plane of efficiency.

So are MOOCs the fast track of higher ed? I took a MOOC to get a first-hand look at how the MOOC operates and to chronicle my experiences. Here’s what I found.

The Basics

But first, the groundwork. For six weeks, I was a student in “Introduction to Sustainability,” a course about the environmental and social issues that worry many First-Worlders. I’m currently researching the sustainability movement on college campuses, so I was naturally curious. Coursera hosted the class, and Jonathan Tomkin, who is a Research Associate Professor and the Associate Director of the School of Earth, Society and Environment at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, delivered the lectures, which are based on a similar class he teaches in person. MOOCs aren’t bound to the semester calendar, so they come in all lengths of time and start at varying points in the year. This MOOC ran for eight weeks, from late January until middle March. (I joined two weeks late and caught up.)

For a technology that intends to disrupt higher-ed, MOOCs mimic the basic structures of their classroom counterparts fairly systematically, some parts better than others. Syllabi, lectures, student discussions, graded assignments, and a final exam were all present in some fashion. Each week I watched five or six mini lectures (total time: about one hour per week) and read excerpts from an online textbook, web articles, and research reports. Periodically I’d check the discussion forums to see what fellow students had to say and add a few comments of my own. At the end of each week, I took two multiple choice quizzes.


MOOCs are paradise for the fiercely independent do-it-yourself-er, and manageable for the fastidious type-A student. There are few deadlines, and nobody but the computer that scores quizzes (and possibly a couple of “Community TAs”) knows who missed one. MOOCs operate on the sink or swim philosophy. Statistically, most students sink. In one of my early posts chronicling my MOOC experiences, I described this as survival of the most determined:  MOOCs don’t weed out the intellectually “unfit” so much as the busy and the frustrated.

This makes MOOCs a nightmare for the disorganized and the unmotivated, and tough for even the genuinely interested but busy student. The courses don’t carry credit and don’t cost money, so students have little but their own curiosity and dedication to motivate them.  Theoretically, it’s refreshing to take a course only with those students who care. But even interested students can find it hard to pay attention.  Hear the words of one of my classmates:

It’s all so strict! It should be enjoyable to learn, not complicated and difficult, we are not here to get a degree, we are here to learn and maybe get a piece of paper to prove more or less we have gone through the subject!

My classmate posted this comment in a thread titled “I feel I am fifteen years old and school has begun again: a semi nightmare!” That thread went on to attract over 150 views and 20 responses, making it one of the most popular discussions from the entire course. Several fellow students responded in commiseration: “Even though I am very interested in this topic, I found it now tiring and unnecessarily strict.” Others advised skipping the quizzes altogether and focusing on the lectures.

For my part, I watched every lecture and completed every assignment, but finding the resolve to stay on track was tough. Flexibility, surprisingly, is a primary factor. On the one hand, it was convenient to be able to start two weeks late and catch up, and to watch lectures in the evenings after coming home from work. But the absence of hard deadlines widens the horizon of possible class times to the point of infinity, making procrastination increasingly attractive. When friends invited me to events, it would have been easy to decline if I could explain, “Sorry, no, I have class tonight.” But I didn’t have class that night–just sometime, anytime, in the near future.


Some of my classmates, responding to the “fifteen years old” thread, commented that they thought the course was appropriately difficult, and that it offered a rigorous education. “I just wanted to say that I AM a 15 year old,” wrote one student, “and I have loved the way this course is laid out.” She explained that she had found intellectual fulfillment in the class:

The deadlines, critical thinking quizzes, and demanding writing requirements have inspired me to really engage with the material and think hard! It is completely up to you how much you want to follow the guidelines, but if you want an intensive course, I’ve found them very helpful.

Another acknowledged that the course was hard, but that he liked it that way.

This course is of high caliber, and very challenging. Call me masochist, but that’s why I like it, because it forces me to go beyond my capacities.

The frustrated student who started the thread agreed that the work was tough (“these are the hardest” quizzes) but disagreed that their mere difficulty made them “high caliber.” Instead, she wrote that the difficulty often would “make me think of my severe teachers” from K-12.

I didn’t share her dismal K-12 experiences, but I was more inclined to agree with her take on the course assessments. One of the hardest parts of the class was passing the quizzes–and not because they were conceptually hard. These twice-weekly multiple-choice questionnaires were overly intricate and tested our logical reasoning skills, not our mastery of the material. Writing an extended argument or developing an in-depth research paper might have been more along the lines of “high caliber” rigor, but the mechanisms for grading those kinds of assignments aren’t scalable to thousands of students, and hence absent from the MOOC.


It’s no intrinsic vice of MOOCs, of course, if their students find it hard to meet the deadlines and pass the quizzes. But finding motivation is easier when you’re rewarded for your efforts and when you have a community of intellectual peers who reinforce you. A group of curious students (the kind that most MOOC users, motivated only by interest and not by credit, probably are) should be able to spur each other to aim higher, work harder, think carefully, and pay close attention.

The absence of such reinforcement was the source of my greatest disappointment in the MOOC, especially since MOOCs tend to draw better-educated mid-career professionals. After the course first launched in 2012, Professor Tomkin noted that “The average student was older and more experienced than a typical undergraduate.”  When I conducted my own random sampling of my classmates’ profiles, I found a New York businessman starting a sustainability-inspired restaurant, a denizen of DC prepping for grad school, and a man from Bangalore, India, hoping to improve his prospects of getting promoted, and only one current college student.

What should have been a ripe opportunity for deep discussion often deteriorated into scattershot posts, with students posing questions to an undefined audience and hoping, fingers crossed, for a good response. Crowdsourcing (voting comments up or down) determines which posts appear first, the idea being that valuable questions will garner more attention and less worthwhile posts will garner less. The effect is distorted in favor of however the initial audience votes, so that popular posts become more popular, and unpopular posts become increasingly less popular. That meant that some discussions fell flat from the start, like a thread I started on whether so-called “environmental ethics” trumped economics. But once a thread reaches a critical mass of student activity, it becomes even more active, as in the case of a post I started in favor of fracking, which generated almost 30 anti-fracking responses, a particularly high response rate for this MOOC.

This is a systemic problem. There’s no professor to field questions and divert attention away from rabbit trails, or pose the question that should have come up but nobody thought to ask. The professor also isn’t available to engage in conversations, though “Community TAs” monitor discussion forums instead. “The instructor is not able to answer emails sent directly to his account” the course website reminds students. “All questions should be posted to one of the above forums.” At the end of the course, I did track down Professor Tomkin’s email from his U-Illinois faculty page and reach out to ask him a few questions about the making of the MOOC, and the substance of the course, and I appreciated his responding. But that was a luxury few of the MOOC students enjoyed.

Textbook 2.0

The MOOC was largely a one-sided discourse, but that doesn’t diminish its capacity to convey information. In fact, it may even enhance it.  MOOCs transmit information in a streamlined manner for a diverse audience. The emphasis is on conveying content, not on fostering discussions on or testing mastery of that content. If a classroom is a place of intellectual discovery and mental sharpening, the MOOC is the warehouse of information to stock that mind. As much as I grew frustrated with quizzes and annoyed with the discussion boards, I did learn quite a lot about the philosophical framework that sustainability advocates assume.

For the record, I asked Professor Tomkin what he thought of the analogy between MOOCs and books, and he thinks the discussion forums make the MOOC more akin to a class than to book: “There are other people involved, and even if a participant isn’t an active poster, they can sense the community and the fact that this is a live experience.” He added, “Unlike a textbook, you can fall behind – MOOCs end.”

The Credit Question

I’m not convinced that the mere presence of a few opportunities of online chats constitute a full-fledged course, however. Traditionally, dialogue and Socratic investigation have been an integral part of higher education, a substantial step up from reading a textbook. Knowing facts and acing multiple-choice quizzes don’t indicate content mastery, and haphazard discussion threads don’t substitute for real debate.

For those reasons, I wouldn’t award credit on the basis of MOOC. They may be fast-track options to collecting useful information into one place. But when it comes to learning, the journey is worth more than the destination.

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